The Yankee Heritage

The Pilgrim Fathers

New England, to the north-east of America, is known as America’s birthplace. It comprises six states – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers, religious dissenters from the Church of England arrived in a small boat called the ‘Mayflower’ in Plymouth off the cost of Massachusetts.

These simple people set about starting a fresh life in New England which was said to have more kinds of weather to one ‘square hour’ and the rugged terrain was not favorable for farming. The English settlers were ill-prepared for life in New England. They were not adventurers but homemakers. The forests were said to be full of savages and wolves.

But these hard working people were determined to ‘make do’ with what nature had provided. They built large common shelters before they built individual houses and began cultivating the virgin soil. Gradually they succeeded in agriculture – growing apples, gathering maple syrup, in dairy industry and poultry. Trade by sea was always important to the Englishmen. Soon they set up a large trading business with England – carrying lumber, fish, fur and getting manufactured goods in return. For A Pilgrim village tour, click here.

The success of the Plymouth Plantation Colony attracted more Englishmen to set sail to the new land and the new immigrants, the Puritans set up the Massachusetts Bay colony. Read more at New England Colonies. 8 Jul 2008

The First Thanksgiving

Winter in New England is very harsh and almost half of the population perished due to disease and starvation when the first winter came. The rest stayed on working harder and on November 1621, completed one year in the new country. The Indian Chief, Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoags arrived from Massachusetts with gifts of venison and turkey. A feast was held to celebrate and thank God. This is generally considered the first Thanksgiving in America, now fixed as the fourth Thursday of November.

Read more for interesting details about the feast and the Pilgrims’ menu.

Yankee Traits

Yankee was a term used for the residents of New England, of English ancestry. In the early colonial days, it was used to refer to all colonists. Far from it being an offensive term, being a Yankee was a proud part of a New Englander’s heritage.

Faced with a harsh weather and a rocky terrain, the Yankees developed traits that became distinctive of their lot. The self reliance of the Yankees led them to improvise and make do with what was available to them. Yankee peddlers traveled far and wide carrying ingeniously created articles and were said to have ingenious notions and ‘Yankee ingenuity’ came to be highly regarded. Yankees were known for their dry humor as much as for their fortitude, thrift, common sense and steadfastness in the face of adversity.

Frost: The ‘essential voice and spirit’ of New England

Frost’s family belonged to New England for generations before him. Nicholas Frost settled there in early 1600 and his son Samuel Abbot Frost was Robert Frost’s great grandfather who farmed in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. His grandfather, William Prescott Frost also farmed at Lawrence, Mass.. But the poet’s father, William Prescott Frost Jr., moved to San Francisco to become a journalist. It was in 1885 that the family returned to Lawrence, Mass. to live with grandparents when the poet’s father died of consumption.

Robert Frost, when he first came to New England did not like the Yankees. As he grew to know them, he developed a fondness for them and their characteristic traits. It was his years of farming at New Hampshire that were most important for his poetic genius.
Most of his poems are set against the New England countryside with its people, their lives, their hardships and their beliefs forming his themes.

John F Kennedy, himself a New Englander, said of Frost: ‘His life and his art summed up the essential qualities of the New England he loved so much: the fresh delight in nature, the plainness of speech, the canny wisdom, and the deep underlying insight into the human soul.’

Ezra Pound in a review of North of Boston, wrote: ‘He (Frost) is quite consciously putting New England rural life into verse….There are only two passions in art; there are only love and hate with endless modifications. Frost has been honestly fond of the New England people,…He has given their life honestly and seriously. He has never turned aside to make fun of it. He has taken their tragedy as tragedy, their stubbornness as stubbornness. I know more of farm life than I did before I had read his poems. That means I know more of life.’

When Robert Frost decided to go to England in 1912, he wrote to Susan Hayes Ward: ‘My dream would be to get the thing started in London and then do the rest of it from a farm in New England where I could live cheap and get yankier and yankier.’

From England he wrote to her: ‘We can’t hope to be happy long out of New England. I never knew how much of a Yankee I was till I had been out of New Hampshire a few months. I suppose the life in such towns as Plymouth and Derry and South Bercwick is the best on Earth.’

Some lines from RF’s poems that pay tribute to Yankee traits

Yankee ingenuity:
Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.
-Provide Provide
“He seems to be thrifty; and hasn’t he need,
With the mouths of all those young Lorens to feed?
He has brought them all up on wild berries, they say,
Like birds. They store a great many away.
They eat them the year around, and those they don’t eat
They sell in the store and buy shoes for their feet.”
– Blueberries
I’ll own it’s cold for such a fall of snow.
This house is frozen brittle, all except
This room you sit in. If you think the wind
Sounds further off, It’s not because it’s dying;
You’re further under the snow – that’s all –
And feel it less.
– Snow
Steadfastness in adversity and humor:
I farm a pasture where boulders lie
As touching as a basket full of eggs
And though they’re nothing anybody begs,
I wonder if it wouldn’t signify

I’d ship a smooth one you could slap and chafe,
And set up like a statue in your yard,
An eolith palladium to guard
The West and keep the old tradition safe.
– Of The Stones of the Place

Calmness in adversity:
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then – the watcher at his pulse took a fright.
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little – less – nothing! – and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
-Out, Out
Common sense:
Yankees are what they always were.
Don’t think Brown ever gave up hope.
Of getting home again because
He couldn’t climb the slippery slope;
Or even thought of standing there
Until the January thaw
Should take the polish off the crust.
He bowed with grace to natural law.
– Brown’s Descent
He is all pine and I am apple-orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
– Mending Wall

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